A tracking system based on eye-safe lasers could enable aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and orbiting satellites to transmit vital data to ground stations more securely, quickly and efficiently. A proof-of-concept system has been successfully tested in-flight, and ongoing work is underway to extend the system’s current 1-km range. The optical system aims a laser with a wavelength of 1550 nm up from the ground toward the target aircraft, which is equipped with a specially designed reflector that captures the beam, modifies it with the data to be transmitted and then sends it back to the ground where it can be decoded and read. The system, called HYPERION, was developed by a joint team through Innovate UK's HITEA (highly innovative technology enablers in aerospace) program comprising researchers from the University of Oxford with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and Airbus Group Innovations with Innovate UK support. Developed as an alternative to radio frequency data transmission systems often used in the UAV sector, the team said HYPERION could for example allow UAVs engaged in disaster monitoring, surveying, search and rescue and other humanitarian missions to send detailed images more rapidly back to the ground for analysis. It could also enable airliners to offload technical and performance data gathered by on-board sensors to ground crews during final approach to an airport, speeding up maintenance procedures and cutting turnaround times. Philip Nelson, chief executive of EPSRC, said the system could make aircraft and unmanned vehicles more resilient to outside interference. RF communications are potentially vulnerable to interception and jamming and rely on an increasingly crowded part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unless alternatives are developed that can supplement radio communications, it simply will not be possible to cope with the huge volumes of data that need to be transmitted from the skies in years in come, the researchers said. Yoann Thueux, research team leader at Airbus Group Innovations said that HYPERION could also address the needs of the space sector, by allowing data download from microsatellites in low Earth orbit. The team expects HYPERION to ready for use in about 3 to 5 years. For more information, including videos of the proof-of-concept system, visit http://projecthyperion.co.uk.